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Sri Lankan elephants are afraid of honey bees

Researchers at the University of Oxford are reporting that Asian elephants are intimidated by bees. A new study in Sri Lanka has demonstrated that Asian elephants retreat from the simulated sound of angry honey bees.

While researchers have used recordings of disturbed honey bees for many years to show that African elephants are naturally threatened by them, this is the first time the technique has been used with Asian elephants.

The study revealed that Asian elephants retreated even further away and were significantly more vocal in response to the bee simulations than African elephants. The experts believe that beehive deterrents, which have been used to keep African elephants off of rural farms, can now be applied to Asian elephant populations as well.

The study was led by Dr. Lucy King, a research associate in the Department of Zoology and head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program for Save the Elephants.

“Asia has even higher levels of human-elephant conflict than Africa does and Asian elephants are approximately 10 times more endangered than African elephants,” said Dr. King. “If we could help apply the results from this research to develop effective community-based beehive fence deterrent systems for rural Asian farmers living with elephants, we could have a significant impact on the survival of the Asian elephant species.”

The study was conducted in Udawalawe National Park, which has an exceptionally large elephant population.

“Udawalawe is a microcosm for the issues Asian elephants face, because it is practically encircled by agriculture and settlements,” said study co-author Dr. Shermin de Silva. “This study takes the first step in offering a new way of addressing the conflicts that arise as a result.”

In collaboration with the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society and Newcastle University in Australia, 10 trial beehive fence projects have been deployed in an effort to reduce human-elephant conflict on rural farms in central Sri Lanka.

“We have a wonderful community of willing farmers there who are helping us understand if beehive fences could work to reduce conflict in this intensely high human-elephant conflict zone,” said Dr. King. “Although beehive fences may not completely stop elephant crop-raids the honey bees provide other benefits to the farms in the form of pollination services and a sustainable income from honey and wax products.”

Asian beehive fence projects are also being developed by scientists for testing in Thailand, India, and Nepal.

The study is published in Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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